Granted, the best way to indicate not having a dog in the fight might be to not post anything at all on the topic of Rob Bell and heresy. However, I've read enough buzz and news concerning Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, to at least want to write something simple in response. So, if you've heard of the book, or read it, or have at least a passing interest in universalism, heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived, then here are a few choice words, intentionally brief, on the topic.
1. The dude knows how to wear clothes. Whenever I watch one of his Nooma videos, I want to run right out and buy glasses like his, or figure out how to get one of his sweaters at deep discount. In fact, most of the time, I'm so focused on the clothes and the style I have trouble attending to the substance. Anyone else experience this?
2. And he has a great video production team. I'm jealous. He released a promotional video for his book. You can learn tons about how to produce beautiful video that also conveys a theological message by watching it and the Nooma series.
3. He pastors a very big church. Very big. So any reactions people are having to Rob Bell's book are also probably caught up in some kind of envy. Maybe not everybody, but it's at least worth pointing out.
4. Now, on to the theology proper. The reason I say I don't have a dog in the fight is because Lutherans (or at least the kind of Lutheranism to which I subscribe and confess) simply doesn't think about salvation and heaven and hell in the way the evangelical world does. I think, as far as I can tell, that the debate around Rob Bell centers in some classic Calvinist predestinarian assumptions about who is in and out of heaven or hell, and all of this connects to the specific kind of atonement theory that informs each of those who either criticizes or supports Bell. There's probably something in the debate around covenantal theology or a few other categories I simply don't follow, so I admit that I may have missed something.
Some of the debate is related to rather ham-handed interpretations of Scripture itself, but I think we can simply gloss those and not worry about them.
Some of the debate is over what is central in the Christian tradition from the early church. Since Origen was declared a heretic, his universalism (with which I resonate; caveat, inasmuch as I am a universalist, I am a Trinitarian universalist of the Origenist or Barthian persuasion, but more of that anon) simply hasn't been an option. But again, that would be a separate essay about the development of universalist options in the history of the confession of the church.
But Lutherans shouldn't get caught up in the debate, at least not in most of the ways the debate is currently being conducted, and for the following reasons.
1) We aren't universalists precisely, because that is simply to say that God elects everyone, and it's awfully difficult to say that in light of the Scriptures.
2) We aren't into free will. We don't even think you can "believe" of your own free will (see Luther's explanation of the third article of the creed in the Small Catechism). So, although we aren't universalists, we also don't believe heaven and hell divides out between those who choose Jesus and so are saved, and all those other unlucky persons who either didn't choose Jesus or never heard of him.
3) We aren't interested in predestination. That's to attempt to peer into the sovereign (another tricky word we seldom use) will of God, and whenever you try to take a look at the hidden God, watch out.
4) We preach election. If you wonder whether you are saved or not, let me say to you again, "You are justified by faith in Christ." Then, the very word you hear has power because it is the word of God, and creates faith (in the Spirit) where there wasn't faith. Which is to say, the solution to the problem of the fate of every person on earth is to preach the gospel. God's word will really do something. If you ask, What about those who haven't heard the gospel yet? I ask in response, Why don't you go tell them they are just, for Jesus' sake? I bet they'd love a bit of good news.
To which you say, But are they saved? To which I say, Why don't you go tell them they are. Better yet, why don't we go together and tell them!
Of course, following this initial assertion, there is plenty more to talk about, and ask questions concerning. But I think you can see how this changes the terms of the debate. Although it isn't expressed in quite the same way Bell expresses, or doubted in quite the same way his doubters doubt him, nevertheless, it does indicate that him getting out and preaching, and taking it to a live audience, is itself not unlike what Lutherans should do, even if we theologize differently.
We're walking different dogs, but I think in the same dog park.